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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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07.19.06

The Chicken or the Egg

Food History


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chickens

Descendants of chickens that escaped years ago during a tropical storm wander the streets of Key West, Florida.

A chicken in every pot was not first promised by American politicians but by a French king. Henry IV (Henry of Navarre) said, in the 16th century, “I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” Nowadays, chickens outnumber humans worldwide, and just about everybody can boil up a bird once considered so sumptuous that it was forbidden for religious fast days.

Today’s chicken, regardless of the variety, is descended from Gallus gallus, a wild red jungle fowl indigenous to south Asia. First domesticated in India about 4,000 years ago, the chicken was originally a sacred bird sacrificed for the sake of augury. However, it is likely that chicken made it to the table early on, though documentation seems to show that eggs and cockfights were of greater initial interest to those who later adopted the fowl as food.

Though chicken probably reached central Europe by 1500 B.C., it appears not to have reached the Middle East for another hundred years or more. However, a painting of a chicken was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which shows that it was in Egypt by at least 1350 B.C., and the chicken’s appearance on Assyrian seals shows that it had reached Asia Minor by the eighth century B.C.

The Greeks and Romans didn’t exactly rush to get the chicken in their pots, but the Greeks had the birds, as evidenced by a 720 B.C. law that barred roosters from the town of Sybaris, because they woke people up too early. References to hens’ eggs started appearing in the fifth century B.C., and by 185 B.C., chicken was being widely consumed. Greeks on the island of Cos were the first in the West to develop methods of fattening chickens for the table. (The reason that eggs were for so long the main focus of interest in the ancient world may be hinted at by the fact that, even today, the chickens of the Mediterranean regions are better for laying than for meat.)

chicken mole

You don’t have to wonder how these chickens in Mexico will be prepared. Do you prefer Mole Rojo, Mole Coloradito, or Mole Negro?

The earliest cookbook still available, written by the first-century Roman gourmet, Apicius, lists numerous chicken recipes, and the bird held a place of honor on the tables of Pompeii. Though Romans learned to raise chickens from the Greeks, it is likely that Rome’s insatiable desire for Chinese luxuries, which included foods as much as silks, was a major factor in the escalating popularity of chicken, because the Silk Road carried new culinary ideas as well as trade goods.

However, the Romans did not only adopt ideas. It appears that they invented the capon (as a letter-of-the-law response to a ban in 162 B.C. on the raising of fattened hens, to conserve grain). The Romans are also credited with the invention of the incubator. Just as they heated their homes with hot steam, so, too, they heated hatching chambers. Chickens were hatched in ever increasing quantities. (Actually, it’s hard to nail down “first place” in this contest, because just about the same time, the Egyptians came up with “ovens” for hatching chicks, and the Chinese were beginning to successfully incubate duck eggs.)

In Europe, the chicken, and more especially the capon, enjoyed huge popularity during the Middle Ages. So great was the fowl’s success that, by the early 800s, city councils were expressing concern about over-indulgence. But the fowl’s popularity continued to grow. Cookbooks started to appear in the mid to late 13th century with recipes for stuffed capon and chicken stew—the first known mention of chickens in cookbooks since Apicius’s early effort.

Etymologically, the word “chicken” comes from the Middle English chiken, which in turn comes from the Old English, cicen, a young chicken. Because Old English was spoken from the 7th century to about 1100, the chicken had obviously made an early leap across the channel, probably with Germanic invaders, for whom the bird was kuchen. (When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought their French terms, hence the addition to our language of poultry and pullet.)

In the 1800s, China sprung the Cochin on the world. This previously unknown breed of chicken was a showstopper—a feathered beauty far showier than the common run-of-the-farm breeds. Europe and the U.S. launched into a chicken-breeding frenzy that produced hundreds of new varieties. The chicken took on new importance as a farm animal. While many breeders sought to produce gloriously plumed birds for competitions, others thought in more practical terms. It was during the 1800s that the champion of all laying hens, the white Leghorn, emerged, and Cornish birds of this era gave rise to progeny who boasted the best meat.

hong kong chicken

Chinese markets — such as this one in Hong Kong’s New Territories — usually have lots of chickens for sale.

Chicken today is probably the most universally eaten of all animals. Its tropical origins have not kept the bird from acclimating to the majority of habitable regions, and among domesticated animals, only the dog has a wider range. Even in poor countries, or countries with limited grazing land, chicken can be easily and inexpensively raised, which is why almost every cuisine in the world—especially in Asia and Africa—has chicken recipes. It is amazingly versatile, appearing in dishes that range from humble to luxurious. As Brillat Savarin noted, “Chicken is for the cook what canvas is for the painter.”

But even in the kitchen, the question remains, which comes first, the chicken or the egg. That eggs are worthy of admiration has been recounted by many of the great chefs and gastronomes of the last few centuries. The sixteenth-century historian Benedetto Varchi wrote a treatise on boiled eggs, while the renowned seventeenth-century French cook Pierre François de la Varenne produced a cookbook that contained sixty different recipes for eggs. In his masterwork, Le Guide Culinaire (1903), the legendary Auguste Escoffier wrote that “Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg.” He then went on to detail nearly 150 recipes for eggs. So the humble hen’s egg is no culinary slouch. In fact, it is said by some that the number of pleats in the traditional chef’s toque corresponds to the repertoire of egg dishes he or she has mastered.

Though some ancient peoples have traditionally viewed eggs as too valuable to eat—an egg might produce another chicken, which would feed more people than the egg would—most cultures have numerous recipes that employ these dandy little protein parcels. And they are nutritional wonders, indeed. In the world of food, when it comes to judging and classifying substances as complete and digestible, the standard is the egg. It possesses all the amino acids needed for growth and is rated as having the highest biological value of all common foods (96 on a scale of 100). A hen’s egg also supplies all the essential vitamins except vitamin C, and most of the essential minerals in sufficient amounts to affect metabolism. Consume two eggs, and you’ve met half of your daily requirement for proteins and vitamins. Toss in a piece of fruit and some whole-grain bread, and you pretty much have a perfect meal.

morocco eggs In rural areas of Morocco, farmers often sell the free range eggs from their chickens.

Interestingly, the egg yolk (from the Old English geolu, which meant, and is also the root of, “yellow”) and albumen (egg white, from the Latin albus, “white”) are such complicated materials that food science has still not been able to fully explain their composition and behavior. But fortunately, you don’t have to understand eggs to enjoy them.

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